Sense of Wonder: Why is Christina Ricci not a horror star?

Christina Ricci attempts to prove that she, not Liam Neesons mortician, is the scariest character in AFTER.LIFE
Christina Ricci attempts to prove that she, not Liam Neeson, is the scariest actor in AFTER.LIFE

The recently released AFTER.LIFE is intended as a thought-provoking horror film, but the only lasting thought it provoked in me is the question: Why is Christina Ricci not a horror star? She is easily the best thing about the film; although playing what turns out to be essentially the victim role, she surpasses the chill-factor of her supposedly creepy co-stars (at least, their roles are meant to be creepy), projecting not only a melancholy gloom but also an eerie allure perfectly suited to the genre – one that goes beyond the surface and registers at some deeper, authentic level. She is obviously beautiful, but more than that, she is beautiful in the femme fatale sense that author James M. Cain meant when he had a character Serenade state that “true beauty has terror in it.”
I am perfectly well aware that Christina Ricci might not want to be a horror star (few actors want to be trapped in a genre like a helpless victim sealed inside a castle dungeon), but if the coffin fits, why not try it out?
Christina Ricci as the allegedly living corpse in AFTER.LIFE
Christina Ricci as the allegedly living corpse in AFTER.LIFE

AFTER.LIFE suggests that the fit would be perfect. In it, Ricci plays a woman who wakes up on a mortician’s table, apparently dead and bound for the afterlife but not quite ready to relinquish her mortal existence. The casting is perfect: Ricci’s dark-eyed countenance is at once attractive and disquieting, suggesting a morbid undercurrent beneath the character’s surface; she is every sad-eyed dreamer’s fantasy of a mysteriously alluring Goth girl, but she pulls this off with affectation – it’s part of her nature, not a matter of adopting a sullen, artificial pose.
With this kind of screen persona, Ricci should be top-lining a string of horror films and/or Gothic-romances; she would certainly be a welcome addition to – and a big improvement upon – the current crop of “romantic” vampires polluting cinema screens. That she is not is a mystery to which I do not know the solution, although I suspect it is part of the genre’s evolution away from horror stars in favor of concepts, makeup, and special effects. There is really no modern equivalent of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee, so why should we expect a modern version of Barbara Steele?
I’ll tell you why: because we deserve something more than Jigsaw and torture porn and anonymous remakes of ’70s slasher movies and tired retreads of J-horror hits. When you have a wonderful resource, tap it to its fullest potential; don’t let it waste away.
Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams
Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams

Not that Ricci’s career is wasting away. I just wish the horror genre would make use of her more often – and treat her better when it does use her. She certainly got off to a great start with her darkly comic turn as the young Wednesday Addams in the two amusingly creepy ADDAMS FAMILY films. She held her own opposite seasoned performers like Raul Julia and Angelica Huston, creating a memorable portrait of a sinister but lovable “outsider” who is adored precisely because she does not fit the traditional mold of a cute and cuddly film kid. This truly was a character – and a performance – that any horror fan could love.
This should have launched her into a long and successful career in the genre. I had hoped to see her cast as Claudia, the child-vampire in INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, but the role went to Kristen Dunst instead. Maybe this was some kind of turning point; although Ricci continues to work consistently,she is not always getting the roles she deserves, while Dunst is starring in big-budget genre blockbusters like SPIDER-MAN. (Typically, when the two actresses crossed paths in 1998’s SMALL SOLDIERS, Dunst had the female lead, while Ricci supplied only a voice for one of the talking toys.)
Having missed out on a serious horror film, Ricci next appeared in another creepy comedy, the rather juvenile CASPER (1995). As the young girl whose father moves her into a haunted house, she comes across a bit like a younger version of Winona Ryder in BEETLEJUICE, but the film is too family-friendly to indulge in the dark wit that made ADDAMS FAMILY so memorable.
Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp
Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp

Ricci eventually got her chance to appear in a well-received horror blockbuster: after playing the title role in LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, a 1997 short subject adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale, Ricci was cast in  SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999). With its old-fashioned Gothic atmospheric approach to horror, complete with period setting, the film was a perfect match for Ricci; unfortunately, her role as an innocent love interest (and just barely a red herring in the murder mystery) did not exploit her talents to their fullest, and director Tim Burton had her hair dyed blond, softened her into a rather conventional looking leading lady. Ricci is not bad, but her own particular, foreboding charm is little in evidence. Why use the actress if you’re not going to use her strengths that enhance the genre?
Christina Ricci senses a new wolf-life side to her nature
Christina Ricci senses a new wolf-life side to her nature

Next year Ricci was in BLESS THE CHILD, starring Kim Bassinger – a mess that probably all involved would like to forget; I certainly have forgotten it, and I wasn’t even in it. CURSED (2005) at least had the smarts to play with  Ricci’s potentially lethal allure, but the potential inherent in the casting is wasted. Ricci certainly looks great as the young woman who senses that she has acquired a new predatory nature, but Kevin Williamson’s tongue-in-cheek werewolf script has the character come across like a watered-down, feminized version of Jack Nicholson in WOLF, and director Wes Craven has Ricci perform some silly actions (such as sniffing her way through an office building when she discovers her new-found ability to detect scents). Another opportunity lost.
Since then, Ricci’s cinefantastique films have trended toward fantasy. She played the title role in PENELOPE, a self-described “fairy tale” about a woman with the nose of a pig. And she was Trixie in the Wachowski Brothers’ bloated live-action rendition of SPEED RACER. Even if she is good in these films, they don’t do justice to what she truly could achieve if some Hollywood genius would finally craft a vehicle that played to her strengths.
Which is why (among other things, admittedly) AFTER.LIFE is such a disappointment. The film casts her in a starring role for which she is perfectly suited, and for about the first third it seems as if it will work, the camera’s gaze treating her with the reverence of a connoisseur appreciating an object d’art. Suspended between life and death, Ricci displays the unreal vampire-like beauty of a carefully carved statue, an effect amplified by the cool photography that paints her skin in alabaster hues (the better to contrast with the bright red satin slip that is her costume throughout most of the running time – when she is not fully unclothed, that is).
Christina Ricci contemplates a passage that may lead to the afterlife.
Christina Ricci contemplates a passage that may lead to the afterlife.

In effect, she is the living embodiment of the ineffable Romantic ideal, too perfect to exist in our crude mortal world, and hence doomed to death and whatever lies beyond. She could be Poe’s Lenore and Annabelle Lee, lost loves now abiding with the angels. At one point in the film, she “walks in beauty like the night,” as Byron wrote of the raven-tressed woman who combined “all the best of dark and light.” More darkly still, she could be Baudelaire’s TheVampyre, the evil seductress “seeking whom she may devour.”*
The thrill that AFTER.LIFE sustains but – unfortunately – never fulfills is that Ricci’s character will embrace this new nocturnal existence and emerge reborn into darkness as some variation on Théophile Gautier’s “La Morte Amoureuse.” That the film fails in this regard is only the latest example of the horror genre failing to crown this dark princess as its rightful queen.

  • In one of AFTER.LIFE’s mildly amusing moments, Ricci’s character, a school teacher, issues an order to some misbehaving kids, who hesitate before obeying. As she stares at them, you half-expect her to say, “Do what I tell you, before I drink every drop of blood in your bodies and devour your souls.”


After.Life: Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast

After sitting out last week’s CLASH OF THE TITAN’s episode, Dan Person’s is back in the host’s chair this week for a round-table discussion of AFTER.LIFE, the new horror-thriller starring Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and Justin Long, about a young woman who wakes up after a car accident to find that she is in a funeral home – dead, according to the mortician. The independent film is in limited release around the country. Also reviewed this week is  THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND, another low-budget horror film in limited release. And of course, the usual round up of news, home video releases, and random recommendations.


After.Life (2009)

After.Life (2009)Built around an intriguing premise, this ambitious little horror movie deserves credit for its art house aspirations, focusing on characterization, ideas, and intrigue instead of violence and shock; unfortunately, this is a case when “vaulting ambition” o’erleaps itself and falls victim to its own seriousitude, the heavy-handed approach collapsing under its own weight and generating laughter instead of pathos. A generous viewer could cut the film some slack in this regard, had the film stayed true to its intentions; unfortunately, AFTER.LIFE eventually wimps out on its own premise, shifting from a thoughtful meditation on themes of life and death into a manipulative thriller, with some extremely unlikely (well, frankly impossible) twists and turns. Curious fans of Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and/or Justin Long may want to risk a viewing, even if the film ultimately fails to live up to their best efforts.

Anna Tayler (Ricci) is a school teacher whose relationship with Paul (Long) is deteriorating for unclear reasons, apparently some vague angst on her part. After an argument at a restaurant, Anna gets in a car accident and wakes up to find herself being prepped for burial by funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), whose reaction is curiously calm as he insists that Anna is dead despite being conscious. Reluctant to take Deacon at his word, Anna tries to escape and contact Paul, who mistakes her telephone call for a sick prank but grows suspicious when one of Anna student’s claims to have seen her standing in a window of the mortuary.
The storyline of AFTER.LIFE follows two tracks. The first presents a vision of how the dead might look back upon their life and loved ones after being unshackled from the earthly cares that weighed them down while alive. Essentially, this is a horror-movie spin on the final act of Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town. Not a bad idea at all, it offers the film a chance to ruminate on themes of life and death with a morbid fascination that at first seems poised on the brink of achieving its higher ambitions.

In one of the dream sequences, Anna (Ricci) leaves another walking corpse behind to explore the darkness beyond death.
In one of the dream sequences, Anna (Ricci) leaves another walking corpse behind to explore the darkness beyond death.

Unfortunately, these ambitions are undermined by the story’s second track, which is more conventional – although, at least initially, handled with some intriguing flair. The question fueling this aspect of the plot is whether Anna is really in limbo, with Deacon acting as a sort of Angel of Death easing her to the other side, or is she really still alive – merely the victim of some bizarre mind game played by Deacon for mysterious reasons of his own? Director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo offers a series of clues that tease the audience with their implications (for example, several hallucinatory scenes offer visual echoes of each other, suggesting that the film may be a post-mortem dream in Anna’s head), but eventually it becomes obvious that she and her co-writers Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk have not thought their story through.
After three days on the slab, having finally been convinced by Deacon that she is dead, Anna realizes that she is actually still alive when she sees her warm breath fog a mirror. The fact that she hasn’t eaten a meal during this time – and should be ravenously hungry – does not seem to have occurred to the writers, nor are they concerned with the unpleasant aspect of bodily functions (e.g, relieving bladder and bowels), which should have clued Anna in to the fact that her life process were still fully functional.
By abandoning its core conceit, AFTER.LIFE abandons its its hold on our attention, along with the art house ambitions that would have justified its serous tone and relatively restrained approach to the horror genre. What remains is too mild to work as a gripping thriller and too contrived to evoke audience empathy. Instead of an ambiguous, almost abstract psycho-drama (a la the wonderful 1989 film CLOSET LAND, with Alan Rickman and Madeline Stowe), we get sub-prime Lucio Fulci, without the gore or the suspense; and even AFTER.LIFE’s absurdity lacks the charm of Fulci’s (supposedly) intentional disregard for narrative logic.
On the plus side, there are some clever touches. Just before her car accidental, Anna dyed her hair red (red being the color of blood, which can symbolize passion and life). In the mortuary, Anna’s grieving mother instructs Deacon to restore Anna’s original hair color. When the red dye rinses down the drain, it resembles lifeblood washing away, Anna’s attempt to embue herself with artificial, symbolic life stripped away as she is infantalized, her appearance no longer dicatated by herself but now by her mother.
Neeson and Long deliver good performances, even if the script prevents them from crafting fully realized characters. In the case of Neeson’s mortician, the problem is that the mystery surrounding the character prevents any depth from developing, and as good as he is, Neeson is not the sort who can fill in the blanks with his mere presence. Long’s problem is simply that his character is ineffectual and at times bathetic (at one point, the film indicates his grief-stricken mental state by having him strike a child – a scene that generates derisive guffaws).
Miss Taylor (Christina Ricci) prepares to defend herself against the mortician (Liam Neeson), who insists that she is dead.
Anna (Christina Ricci) prepares to defend herself against Deacon (Liam Neeson), as the film morphs into a conventional thriller.

Even more on the plus side (at least for the male audience), Ricci looks great in the red satin slip she wears throughout most of the film (again, the red suggesting the fire buried deep within her soul, which is otherwise not apparent in her physical appearance, which is dark and subdued). She has the perfect Goth look to convey a character poised somewhere between life and death, which only makes AFTER.LIFE’s brief flirtation with presenting her as “La Morte Amoureuse” all the more frustrating when it is simply abandoned. Even when the script forces Ricci to completely undress for the final act, the visual approach remains impressively non-exploitative (perhaps because the director is a woman), with cool-blue lighting giving the impression that we are viewing something akin to living sculpture, whose form is truly breath-taking.
This may be one of the AFTER.LIFE’s more successful stabs at subtlety: making us view the character as a beautiful object, a soul-less body, just as Deacon is finally convincing Anna that she is truly lifeless, a walking, talking non-entity who merely imitates life out of robotic habit. Had the film fully explored this idea, it might actually have achieved its ambitions.
AFTER.LIFE (Copyright 2009; theatrical release: April 9, 2010). Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo. Written by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo & Paul Vosloo & Jakub Korolczuk. Cast: Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long.

Cybersurfing: DreadCentral interviews After.Life director

Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson
Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson has posted an interview with Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, the female director of AFTER.LIFE, the independent horror film starring Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson, which will receive a limited platform theatrical release from Anchor Bay this Friday. As far as in-depth information, the interview’s blood runs a bit thin, but Wojtowicz-Vosloo does have a few interesting remarks about what she was trying to achieve with her film, which follows a woman (Ricci) who wakes up on an autopsy slab, where she is confronted by a mortician (Neeson) who insists that she is dead:

“I thought a lot about what happens to the body after death, what happens to your soul, or even what stages your consciousness goes through,” explained Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “I wanted to go beyond this idea of death and look at the human experience as a whole. If someone is physically alive but moves along like an empty vessel, is that person truly alive?”

Wojtowicz-Vosloo cites Kubrick’s THE SHINING, Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, and Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS as major influences, and she notes that AFTER.LIFE does not fit comfortably into the current horror landscape, which is littered with remakes, sequels, and torture porn:

“I’m not quite sure that audiences are ready for After.Life since there aren’t a lot of distinctive horror films that make it into theaters these days,” explained Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “Horror fans are smart so I think they will like After.Life if they give it a chance, but I am aware of what we’re up against.”


After.Life theatrical release

After.Life (2009)Anchor Bay Films is giving platform release to this little movie, hoping that a little theatrical exposure will bump their home video sales. Christina Ricci stars as Anna, who wakes up after a car accident to find herself being prepped for burial by funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson). Understandably reluctant to believe that she is dead, Anna is nevertheless convinced by Deacon. But her grieving boyfriend Paul (Justin Long) has suspicions about Deacon. Is Anna truly dead or merely the victim of the funeral director’s mind games? Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo directed from a script he co-wrote with Paul Vosloo & Jakub Korolczuk. Release date: April 9 (limited).